Great Indigenous Canadian artists

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Let’s get to know some distinguished Indigenous artists and their great contributions to Canadian culture and the arts (to see samples of their works, please go to Community Resources below):

Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007)

Considered the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada and the “Picasso of the North,” Morrisseau was the first Indigenous artist to have shown work in a contemporary gallery in Canada. A self-taught artist, he transcended the perception of Indigenous art being primitive and mainly meant for tourist souvenirs. His art is known for his pictographic style of imagery and use of bright colours depicting traditional stories, spiritual themes and political messages. This style influenced many contemporary artists during that time and created the Woodlands School style of painting.

Morrisseau grew up in an Anishinaabe reserve in Ontario in the 1930s. Like other children in his generation, he was sent to a Residential School. There, he experienced physical and sexual abuse which scarred him for life. At age 10, he left school. The young Morrisseau preferred to spend time in the company of his elders, listening and learning from them, and then going off on his own to draw. He never had formal training but was drawn to illustrate images from his own culture. In the late 50s, he started painting on birchbark baskets and other objects. His works were discovered by the Weinsteins who had ties to the European art scene. This began Morrisseau’s journey into studying modern art and developing his own style, always incorporating elements of his Indigenous culture. After his exhibition in 1962 at the Pollock gallery in Toronto, he was hailed a critical and commercial success. His paintings began to command attention in art circles and he was recognized nationally and internationally.

Norval Morrisseau was awarded the Order of Canada in 1978 for his contributions to Canadian contemporary art. In 2006, the National Gallery of Canada mounted Norval Morrisseau – Shaman Artist, a travelling retrospective exhibition of his work. Google is honouring the artist with a Google doodle featured on Google Canada’s landing page on June 21 (today), National Indigenous Peoples Day.

The Indigenous Group of Seven

This group was also called the Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation. The Indigenous Group of Seven was a group of artists who aimed to promote Indigenous art in the contemporary gallery system. It was formed in Winnipeg at Daphne Odjig’s printshop and gallery at 331 Donald Street. Members of the group were Jack Beardy (Cree), Eddy Cobiness (Ojibway), Alex Janvier (Dene, Saulteaux), Norval Morrisseau (Ojibway), Daphne Odjig (Potawatomi, Odawa), Carl Ray (Cree) and Joseph Sanchez (Pueblo, Spanish, German). The group mounted exhibitions all over Canada, a member opened a school for First Nations artists, and some members taught at the Manitou Arts Foundation.

The trailblazing group had a short life and was disbanded in 1975. However, they left an enormous impact on the Canadian art world and on a new generation of Indigenous artists. Aside from ensuring the survival of Indigenous philosophies, aesthetics and identity, they were successful in bringing the work of contemporary Indigenous artists to the public’s attention. The group had also formed a blueprint which new organizations are now patterned after to provide support and inspiration to new generations of artists.

Daphne Odjig (1919-2016)

Daphne Odjig was among the founders of the Indigenous Group of Seven. The internationally recognized and renowned visual artist was raised on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Her artistic career spanned six decades of lyrical legend paintings that embodied her activism as a feminist Anishinaabe artist and advocate of Indigenous voice in contemporary art.

Daphne Odjig was the first First Nation woman to hold an exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada. This solo exhibit entitled Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig: A Retrospective Exhibition was held in 2009. Her decades of exemplary work has earned for her a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2007), seven honorary degrees, and the Order of Canada (1986) among others. She died in Kelowna, BC on October 2016.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013)

Have you seen The Enchanted Owl on the Canada Post stamp? This is one of Kenojuak Ashevak’s famous prints. Ashevak is known as a pioneer of modern Inuit art. She helped introduce Inuit art to the world through her work and by supporting the West Baffin Co-operative printmaking shop at Cape Dorset in Baffin Island, Nunavut. Although known for her prints, she also carved, designed blankets and created a mural for 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. She also designed a stained glass window for the chapel of Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario.

Her work has won for her numerous awards including the Order of Canada (Companion in 1982) and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2008). She was appointed to the Order of Nunavut (2012). Ashevak is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and her work has been featured in the exhibition Kenojuak Ashevak: To Make Something Beautiful at the National Gallery of Canada.

Bill Reid (1920-1998)

Bill Reid is a well-known sculptor and a leading authority of Haida art and life. Haida are Indigenous people who lived in the coastal bays and inlets of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. He is credited with the resurgence of Northwest Coast Indian arts in the contemporary world. If you entered Manitoba via Vancouver, you have probably seen his massive sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe at the International Terminal of the airport.

Reid started his career as a broadcaster. While he was a working with CBC radio, he studied jewelry and engraving at Ryerson in Toronto because of his interest in the engraved bracelets his Haida aunts wore. This began his journey to discover his Indigenous heritage. He continued his art studies at the Central School of Art and Design in London England.

Reid has produced many significant Haida art including jewelry, serigraphs, illustrations, and sculptures in various media. He carved in gold, silver, wood and argillite and cast in Bronze. Among his major works are The Raven and the First Humans at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (1980), The Chief of the Undersea World for the Vancouver Aquarium (1984), and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii for the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC (1991). Reid has been awarded an honorary doctorate from UBC (1976), the Molson Prize (1977) and the Lifetime Achievement Award, National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, sponsored by the Canadian Native Arts Foundation (1994). In July 2020, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorated his legacy by launching a new toonie featuring his red and black Haida grizzly bear.
Updated June 21, 2022.
Sources: Norval Morrisseau, Biography, Carmen Robertson; Norval Morriseau, Tom hill, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation, Bonnie Devine, The Canadian Encylopedia; The Indian Group of Seven, Native Art in Canada; Daphne Odjig, Bonnie Devine, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Kenojuak Ashevak, Jean Blodgett, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Kenojuak Ashevak, Spirit Wrestler Gallery; Who was Bill Reid? The Raven’s Call; Bill Reid, Carol Sheenan, The Canadian Encyclopedia; and About Bill Reid, Bill Reid Gallery. All retrieved August 1, 2018.

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Community Resources

For sample works of these great artists, go to:
Norval Morrisseau, Bearclaw Gallery
Indigenous Group of Seven, Erica Commanda, Muskrat Magazine
Daphne Odjig prints, Bearclaw Gallery
Kenojuak Ashevak, Spirit Wrestler Gallery

Bill Reid, The Raven’s Call

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